Prepare for That Which Preparation is Impossible


A long and muddy trail to La Ciudad Perdida

Following a link on Twitter from Bill Moyers, I found this recent New Yorker blog post critiquing the notion of “preparedness” for climate change relevant to past discussions we’ve had on this blog around complexity and unpredictability.

In “Is It Too Late to Prepare for Climate Change,” Elizabeth Kolbert points to a knotted problem endemic to complex adaptive systems: it is difficult to make accurate predictions, and thus attempting to establish certainty in the face of chaos and randomness is a fool’s enterprise. The most effective recourse we have, therefore, may be to make decisions that focus immediately on daily practices that will obliquely—and more effectively—prevent us from crossing thresholds that may nudge our world into extinction.

As Kolbert puts it:

“Promoting “preparedness” is doubtless a good idea. As the executive order notes, climate impacts—which include, but are not limited to, heat waves, heavier downpours, and an increase in the number and intensity of wildfires—are “already affecting communities, natural resources, ecosystems, economies, and public health across the Nation.” However, one of the dangers of this enterprise is that it tends to presuppose, in a Boy Scout-ish sort of way, that “preparedness” is possible.

As we merrily roll along, radically altering the planet, we are, as the leaked I.P.C.C. report makes clear, increasingly in danger of committing ourselves to outcomes that will simply overwhelm societies’ ability to adapt. Certainly they will overwhelm the abilities of frogs and trees and birds to adapt. Thus, any genuine “preparedness” strategy must include averting those eventualities for which preparation is impossible. This is not something that the President can do by executive order, but it’s something he ought to be pursuing with every other tool.” [bold added]

Let me repeat the sentence above that really resonated with me: “any genuine “preparedness” strategy must include averting those eventualities for which preparation is impossible.”

This points us back to Nassim Taleb’s idea in Antifragile that we must seek to benefit from volatility, rather than seek to avoid it.

So let’s pivot these ideas back to school ecosystems. Schools operate very much in the moment. As a teacher in a public middle school, I am immersed in the daily eye of that storm. It’s hard to explain to those who are not teachers, but let me simply say that teaching is a maelstrom, with barely space to breathe, sit down, reflect.

Seeking to better the work we do in the midst of this chaos and complexity thus requires us to harness the networking power of the human and social capital in the building: our teachers, administrators, staff, and children.

I’m going to leave this thought there, though it is woefully incomplete. Maybe you can help me fill it in. I’m too tired to keep writing after a long day! Over and out.

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